In my last article about dreams of the dead, I gave short shrift to dreams of bereavement, which is a subset of dreams where we are visited by the deceased. Often, all visitation dreams are interpreted to be grief dreams, despite the wide range of characteristics shown in these bizarre experiences. So, now let’s take a look at dreams of the recently departed that do seem to be part of bereavement, offering up healing, closure and emotional release that aids the grief process.
Like visitation dreams, bereavement dreams center around a face-to-face with the deceased, with a steady narrative of meeting, exchange, and dissolution of the dream. Unlike all visitation dreams, however, bereavement dreams tend to come more or less promptly after the death of a loved one. Sometimes the night afterward, sometimes a week or month, or even three months later. Bereavement dreams indicate that grieving is still doing its slow digestive work. In waking reality, the loved one is very much a part of the dreamer’s daily thoughts.
Some bereavement dreams do not have the cognitive clarity or lucidity that other visitation dreams have; instead they can be highly emotional, resulting in waking up in grief and tears, sometimes mixed with elation. These dreams are not always positive on the onset, and they can actually be quite disturbing and confrontational.
Because these dreams begin with symbolic and visual representation (the contact with the deceased) and often end with strong emotions, some psychologists refer to these experiences as transformative dreams. Here is a dream published in Joseph Hart’s book the Functional Theory of Dreaming:
I was walking somewhere outside and I saw my father. I don’t remember whether I clearly knew if I was dreaming, but I knew he was dead, or was dying, that I wouldn’t see him anymore. (Patient’s father has died that year). I was sad for him, then for myself. I cried –the feeling was stronger the more I cried. I felt very sad that we didn’t have more contact, that I had wanted to feel more with him than I had. Then I was very sad that I would die and all feeling would stop. I cried openly, deeply, and in my dream I couldn’t see anything anymore. I was inside my body. My father’s image disappeared, there was just my feeling, a deep sobbing feeling in my chest. That was the most deeply that I had ever cried.
Note how the dream proceeds from image to feeling, leading to a remarkably deep heart opening.
Not all bereavement dreams are so plainly cathartic. Sometimes they bring up other emotions and realizations. Here is a touching example of a bereavement dream that was provided by one of my readers in a public comment:
my beautiful 19 year old step daughter died in a gymnastics accident on the 19/6/09, it was devastating and really hard to come to terms with. My nights became blank until the 22/7/09 when I had a dream. I was sitting on the lounge looking down at the coffee table and for some reason I looked up to see M. standing on the other side of the table looking down so her long blonde hair was covering her face. I said “M. that’s you,” (then she lifted her head and shook the hair out of her face and smiled) “you’re here.” At that point I remember feeling so relieved that all the other stuff was a dream. I got up and walked around the table and grabbed M. and kissed her. then I sat back down on the lounge with M. on my lap just hugging her. She was solid in my arms and was happy. I thought it was reality and after that I woke up and had sinking feeling when I realized it wasn’t.
What strikes me about this dream is how real it seems to the dreamer at the time, so real that in the dream he knows that his daughter is still alive and “all the other stuff was a dream.” When he awakens, this reality does not hold up to the harsh morning light, but this cognitive dissonance does not mean that the dream is merely a wish fulfillment. First, the dream’s effect is a forced acknowledgment of this painful loss. Also, the dream illustrates how his daughter is still alive in the dreamworld, and he still can connect with her there. We often say that our dearly departed lives in our heart; this dream shows that this can more than a metaphor.
The Unfinished Business of Grief
Because dreaming is as real as waking life to our minds and hearts, experiences like this allow for many possibilities of completing the “unfinished business” that comes with loss. Psychologist Patricia Garfield has studied bereavement dreams in her private practice, and she writes in her powerful book The Dream Messenger: how dreams of the departed being healing gifts that:
“Our relationship with the dead endures. In our dreams, the dead have messages for the living. The living also have messages for the dead that can be delivered in dreams. Conflicts left pending when the death occurred can sometimes find resolution in the dream world.”
Sometimes these conflicts can be pretty ugly. Dreams of anger, fighting, and reliving past hurts is possible after a loved one has passed on. There is no shame in these dreams; they are reminders of the complexity of our relationships and the emotional burdens that come with being close to another. These moments offer reconciliation, or letting go of bitterness and old grudges.
Grief work is messy and painful. After all, love brings with it a willingness to be hurt. As Rumi writes, “the heart breaks…. open.”
Other times, like the father’s dream for his daughter above, the conflict can be about accepting the death. This can included unsettling imagery. It is not uncommon to have a dream where the deceased looks undead, or ailing from some horrible affliction. Patricia Garfield suggests that this kind of dream, while unpleasant, helps the dreamer remember that the person has passed on. This too is a call for acknowledgment, which may be more of an issue if your loved one passed suddenly and tragically.
Bereavement dreams stir up our grief as much as they comfort us. In this way, dreaming sometimes offers a balance to waking life thought, where we like to stay in control and our “window” for emotional healing is often small. The dreams prod us on to acknowledge our loss at the beginning of the day, and remind us that our love is still very much alive.
These dreams are gifts. Let them sit with you; let them show you the way to your heart and your grief. Sometimes the way in is the way out.
Great lecture on the berkeley Dream course! thanks a bunch
I am extremely interested in psychedelic plants and this realm of human experience. Salvia divinorum provided a very similar account of your lucid dream experience, childhood elements and extremes of psyche. Anyway, if you are aware of interesting studies or have a concrete opinion please elaborate.
Really cool site
Ryan Hurd says
thanks Ed! I had a great time with your class. As you may know, there are few peer-reviewed studies about salvia, but the best best is maps.org Interestingly enough, salvia is classified as an oneirogen for its reverie-like effects. Another entheogen that has been likened to the experience of lucid dreaming is the ayahuasca brew.
I wanted to share a thought on this topic. When I was 13, my aunt, whom I was very close to, died of cervical cancer. Her last few months of illness, I didn’t want to go and see her. I felt guilt about this. Soon after she died, my mother left me and my father for another man. My father and I lost our home and we moved in with his mother. While living there I began to have dreams which lasted for a year–the entire year I lived at this home. The dreams were about my aunt which had passed away. She would come out of the hall way dressed in sheets at first, frightening me. She was horrifying. Very ghostly. She seemed to come “at me” but would never harm me. I was so afraid. Gradually each dream (almost every night) would change. She would be come less frightful. More nuetral and then finally, the last few months of my dreams, we talked and laughed and I asked her why she had to die. She eventually told me she hated that she had to die but she must also die again. In my last few dreams, she died again, over and over again. Then, I moved from the house and have not dreamt of her since. I am now 39. She was special to me and I regret not telling her good-bye. I loved her so much. I can only think that the year worth of dreams helped me to say good-bye..sort of like a second chance.
I have a question and i hope someone can answer it or at least give me some advise.
I lost someone very close to me five years ago. My dreams about her started shortly after her death, that was a plausable event to me. But over the last two years the dreams are becoming more frequent sometimes four or five times a week. She always next to me very vividly I could tell you what she is wearing. She never says much and what she says doesn’t make sense. I’ll admit I haven’t been able to bounce back from her death as quickly as I should, if there is a such thing, or if she needs me. I don’t kwow how to interrupt these dreams. I have always had very memorable dreams, and I do keep a journal.
Ryan Hurd says
one of my frustrations about wordpress is that sometimes comments slip past my radar…. thanks to both Wanda and Emily for commenting here.
Emily, the only advice I may have – if you’re still out there – is to continue doing what you are already doing — sitting, listening, and being with this dream figure. That’s seems to be all she requires right now. Hopefully her speech will become less garbled soon.
I have a questions. My mom passed away 3 months ago at age 72 from leukemia. It was a very long and painful illness. I continue to have dreams of her still sick or in the hospital but the dreams always ends with her saying she has to wash her face or take a bath. Can you tell me what she is trying to tell me?
Ryan Hurd says
Terry, thanks for commenting. While I can’t say what this dream “means” per se, I suggest a pragmatic approach that you take her request literally. If this were my dream — so I’m structuring my personal reality on to the shared space of the dream translated into text, that’s how far I am for your personal associations — The next time I have this dream, I will take a cloth and help her wash her face or get into the bath, however she frames the request. I would keep a journal or somehow solidify this intention (prayer) as I go to sleep each night. Cleansing is one of the oldest rituals of purification we have in our minds, and it can have a powerful effect on all parties.
Kate Maxwell says
My aunt who I was very close to (my whole extended family is very close), passed away almost 5 years ago. Every once in awhile I experience these bereavement dreams, and in fact I had one about 2 weeks ago. The dream always ends up with me sobbing, and usually waking up feeling profoundly sad. My aunt never seems to have a message or a purpose in the dream. She’s simply there with us- talking, laughing, eating, drinking- the normal, mundane stuff we do everyday. And I think, “I’ve missed this so much, but now she’s finally back and everything’s how it should be.” It’s as if she’s returned from several years abroad. I guess it’s because I never had any closure with her, no real chance to say goodbye, even though I was present at her wake, funeral, and burial. The whole time it just felt so unreal, like we were burying a wax figure. I don’t know if it’s worse or better than feeling like she’s really, actually gone forever. I just know that whenever I have one of these dreams, she fades away by the end of it, or like in my most recent one, she simply closes her eyes and never opens them again.
As a healthy 50 year old, my aunt’s passing was very sudden and unexpected. All of us in my family feel like she was ripped from our lives. These dreams I have feel like that ripping and tearing all over again. They are positive and happy until suddenly they are not. I know there’s no quick fix to grief and that her death will remain one of the biggest things to ever impact my life. Five years later it’s still hard for me to think or talk about her without tearing up.
I just wish I could find a way to accept her death and the reality that I will eventually lose everyone I love instead of raging in my mind at all the evil, twisted people in this world who go on living while good, undeserving people are dead. Anger is so stifling. Do you have any advice as to how to use these dreams to find peace? Each time she appears, I’m afraid to say or do anything outside of the norm because I don’t want to break the illusion that everything is fine.
I have a question for you all. My best friend in the whole world died 6 years ago when we were 21 due to lung failure…. He comes to me in my dreams sometimes. Every time he does I get a feeling of true euphoria all over my body… I can feel it while sleeping… I’ll see him and every time its like running into to someone you haven’t seen for a while, someone you miss and suddenly their they are… So I grab him and hug him and then I start to rattle off every little thing that’s happened to me since the last time we spoke. He just sits and listens and smiles at me. Then I always ask him where he’s been and then he just fades away… Then I wake up in tears!!! Every time I asked him where has he been, why do I do this…. If its a dream why doesn’t he just answer if my mind is producing the dream…. Or why can’t I make myself dream of him even if I try or talk about him throughout the day… If I wake up crying every time then my mind hasn’t accepted the reality that he’s dead even though consciously I know he is no longer here.. I really would like to know why this happens because I spend so much time trying not to dream of him that I’ve completely stopped having dreams, or I push myself to the point where I just fall asleep with no recollection of dreaming….
my brother reports that our deceased mother of 8 years came to him 2 days ago with unbearable sobbing. he called me to ask if anyone is ill. he also is experiencing loss within his own family. is this his way of bringing his pain into his awareness?
Ryan – I continually have dreams of my deceased mother that feel so real. She passed away 5-1/2 years ago. In all my dreams we are always yelling at each other OR she isn’t there but I go into a room that is suppose to be her bedroom that is located in a hidden room in a basement. All the lights are on in her room only. Leaving it very bright. There are boxes upon boxes of her things. Like she never finished unpacking. I don’t know why she left the lights on. She was a very immaculate person so the disarray throws me off. First off – How can I get these dreams to stop focusing on the anger we had between us? Second – What is the clutter that wasn’t like her in my dreams for now?
My older brother passed away three months ago. I watched him passed away, and when he died I felt nothing. While the week he was home and was dying I didn’t want to see him, I didn’t want to be near him but I still sat next to him, and cared for him. When he died I bathed him, and dressed him for the mortuary. He was cremated. Recently I’ve been seeing him in my dreams, him just staring at me, and me caring him. My brother was bed ridden and had special needs. I assisted in taking care of him all his life. Now that his gone, I feel off, I feel discouraged, and deep down inside I blame myself for his death. I feel like I could of prevented his death. Now his gone, I feel empty. When he died our family and finances started to fall apart. I feel so damaged and broken, and each time I dream of him I feel so comforted seeing him, what should I do? My sleep pattern has been affected as well..